University offers help with search for graves

·4 min read

In the spirit of reconciliation, faculty members at Université de Montréal (UdeM) came together to extend their support and offer their services to Onkwehón:we communities across Quebec.

In a letter addressed to First Nations and Inuit communities, five members of the university’s anthropology department put forth their commitment to provide services and expertise to those wishing to carry out searches at the grounds of former residential schools in the province.

“The idea was brought about after seeing all the news regarding former residential schools and the discovery of children’s remains,” explained UdeM assistant professor and anthropologist Christian Gates St-Pierre. “We wanted to do more than simply offer our condolences.”

It’s with this goal in mind that the team assembled and began to explore concrete ways to assist Indigenous communities with this complicated process.

Equipped with ground-penetrating radar (GPR), as well as extensive knowledge of both the tools and archival research needed to undertake the work, the faculty members made the voluntary proposal by means of a letter sent to communities on June 30.

“What’s really important for us is that communities do not pay for this work. Because we believe that they shouldn’t have to pay for the errors and atrocities committed by white settlers,” said St-Pierre. “This is a service we want to offer from one human to another.”

This gesture was well-received by several Kanehsata’kehró:non, according to Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) chief Victor Akwirente Bonspille.

“This is a step in the right direction, especially because our community is in support of finding the rest of our lost children,” said Bonspille. “Whether they’re from Kanesatake or other First Nations, these families have lost their children, and it’s important that they know where they are.”

With the MCK elections set for this Saturday, July 31, Bonspille – one of two in the running for the position of grand chief – hopes whoever wins the seat will move forward with the proposition.

“In some way, it would give families a chance to release a bit of that unknowingness,” he added.

While the results of GPR analysis are not exact, St-Pierre explained that they are a useful first step in attempting to establish whether there are, in fact, burials in an area.

“It achieves this without having to dig in the ground, so the burials stay intact, and it allows not to disturb the deceased, which is very important for many communities,” he said.

“If we want to confirm that these are human bodies and if we want more information (about them), we, unfortunately, have to go through archeological digs,” explained St-Pierre, adding that like all aspects of this offer, the decision to pursue excavations would be entirely up to the communities.

Alongside the valuable help offered by anthropologists involved is those of ethnologists such as Marie-Pierre Bousquet.

“The school history of Indigenous Peoples is extremely unknown in Quebec,” pointed out the UdeM Indigenous Studies program director, whose work includes co-writing a book on the very topic.

Bousquet expressed that her research is to a great extent motivated by a will to correct misconceptions that surround the history of residential schools in the province.

“In total, there were six residential schools which were called Indian residential schools, two Indian hostels, and four federal hostels which were for Inuits,” explained Bousquet.

“However, these don’t necessarily include children placed by Indian Affairs agents into schools that weren’t inspected or financed by the federal government,” she continued.

Although the proposal aims to verify grounds of any of the 12 former institutions, the group of faculties expressed that discussions remain open to extending searches at other locations.

With that being said, the search perimeter will nevertheless stay within Quebec.

“Indigenous children in the province were not always sent strictly to Quebec,” noted Bousquet. “Mohawks are especially aware of this as they were, in the majority of the time, sent to Ontario.”

It’s for this reason that Mohawk Council of Kahnawake chief Ross Montour expressed that, while generous, the resources being offered would, in his opinion, be better used elsewhere.

“The majority of people who went to residential schools in Kahnawake ended up at Spanish Residential School in Ontario,” said Montour. “Therefore, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to use this technology and service here.”

While continuing to hold the government of Canada accountable for the system it created and the atrocities that ensued, Montour said conversations with Kahnawa’kehró:non families who experienced a loss remain on the table.

As communities throughout the province consider the proposal, Bousquet reiterated the experts’ dedication to providing support as best they can.

“The letter we sent was, first of all, a letter of solidarity. We wanted to manifest that we’re thinking of the community members and that this is a history that touches us all,” she said.

“For too long, there has been solitude in Canada – we’re now part of a generation who does not want to see this continue.”

Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door

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